Vila Real, Race 1: Bennani storms to WTCC win
"I was driving on the limit from the start"
Mehdi Bennani scored a brilliant FIA World Touring Car Championship victory in the Opening Race at WTCC Race of Portugal in Vila Real on Sunday afternoon.
The Sébastien Loeb Racing driver started fourth on the reverse grid, but was in the lead by the end of lap one and controlled the 11-lap race all the way to the chequered flag.
The introduction of the ‘joker’ lap, a first in WTCC history, added intrigue and drama to the race on the 4.785-kilometre street track – but not for Bennani. He calmly took his ‘joker’ and the slower alternative route at the roundabout that makes up the final corner at the end of the sixth lap, but had built such a gap that he comfortably kept his lead.
“I was driving on the limit from the start,” said the delighted Moroccan after his second win of the season. “I had some contact with the Chevrolet [Esteban Guerrieri] on the first lap, but kept full throttle.
“I was very happy to take the ‘joker’ and still keep the lead. And it’s great to win here in front of the home hero of Portugal [Tiago Monteiro]… everything was perfect. There was no strategy – the best strategy is not to have one! It was full 100 per cent risk. So I was lucky to finish!”
Reverse-grid DHL pole position winner Ryo Michigami was slow away from the line, which kept the pack bunched on the opening lap. That allowed Bennani to get a run on Polestar Cyan Racing’s Néstor Girolami and Campos Racing’s Guerrieri, before demoting Michigami’s Honda for the lead out of the tight Turn 6. Guerrieri’s Chevrolet was further in the wars later in the lap and subsequently bowed out with a bent wishbone.
The mandatory ‘joker’ was allowed from the third lap, and Tom Chilton, WTCC points leader Nicky Catsburg, Rob Huff and Norbert Michelisz all chose to take it. Tiago Monteiro, who rose from seventh on the grid to fourth on the opening lap, took his ‘joker’ on lap four, as did the Volvo S60 of Thed Björk who used the opportunity to claim fifth behind the Castrol Honda World Touring Car Team driver.
Monteiro and Björk made further progress when Michigami and Girolami took their ‘jokers’ at the end of lap seven. Monteiro was now clear in second place from Björk in third, ahead of Chilton, Michigami, Catsberg and ALL-INKL.COM Münnich Motorsport’s Rob Huff, who muscled out Girolami as the Volvo returned to the racing line after his ‘joker’.
DHL pole position man Michigami was jumped by both Catsberg and Huff on lap eight and would be out a lap later with a right-front puncture.
At the front, Monteiro closed on Bennani, but the Citroën C-Elysée WTCC was never under serious threat for victory. Still, second place was enough to vault Monteiro above Catsberg in the points and he now leads the championship ahead of the Main Race at Vila Real.
The Main Race at WTCC Race of Portugal is due to begin at 17h45 local time.
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